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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Spotlight: Cinematographer Michael Simmonds on Working Collaboratively with Ramin Bahrani

You’ve probably seen Michael Simmonds work, even if you don’t realize it. The ace cinematographer has been very busy over the last few years shooting lots of movies, including notable docs Project Nim and The Order of Myths. He’s also shot all of Ramin Bahrani’s better-known films: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag, a terrific short narrated by Werner Herzog, and featured on Futurestates.

I first met Michael at Sundance years ago when Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s first major feature, was playing there, and his work so impressed me that that I’ve followed it since. A while back (okay, a LONG while back, like in October), we chatted through email about the way in which he and Bahrani collaborate, and he was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts with you here.

Kim Voynar: How does the filmmaking process working with Ramin differ from your other projects? Specifically are there ways in which the process is more collaborative? Do you have more creative input, artistic freedom?

Michael Simmonds: I met Ramin in 2002 at Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Amir Naderi’s Marathon, which I shot. He asked me if i would read his script which dealt with people who are mentally, physically and literally stuck in boxes. It was a very early draft of Man Push Cart, and was really good. Since that first encounter we probably have not gone more than a few weeks without talking.

Although Ramin and I communicate frequently, our conversations are always focused on cinema, movies we are watching and films we would like to make. There are no “meetings” but rather a consistent dialogue which has continued for 8 years and counting. It is a collaboration based on mutual respect and a common desire to make the best films we can. Films that we as audience members would want to see. No creative statement is off-limits between the two of us. Of course as the director he has no obligation what so ever to use the idea I may bring to the table, but I know he has thought about it and taken the idea seriously.

We began making these films when we were fairly young and had little resources. I was probably 24 or so when we made Man Push Cart. My involvement in other aspects of the production aside from my DP responsibilities began out of necessity rather than some sort of enthusiasm.

KV: I’m curious as to whether your input has ever influenced or changed the story itself either during prep or once filming has started? Or does Ramin come into it knowing exactly the story he wants to tell and then just looks to you for input on how to frame that
onscreen?

MS: Ramin is a director who is very focused on blocking with the camera and actors. He re-writes his scripts with the camera once on location. On Chop Shop we shot the entire film on a little camera for what felt like months … we have never done a “table reading” that i can remember, but rather rehearse on location with a video camera.

Ramin has his own process (for working with) cast which I have every little to do with. He might bring me in at a early stage to meet a few people so they have a familiarity as the project moves forward. Then after an amount of rehearsal period, we will bring me in to shoot some rehearsals. This is to introduce the actors to the process of working with a director AND cameraman.

For Goodbye Solo our challenge was primarily shooting in a car, which neither Ramin or i had done at that point. So we began by taking the obvious first step and spent a few days watching every car film we could find. We then went over the script together and discussed what we wanted tonally from each car scene and what type of location, framing and lighting would best match the scene. Then we took a digital still camera and photographed each other as the actors in the actual picture car to figure out if the ideas worked and how to technically achieve the shots.

Ramin and I have shot most of our films in one continuous shot, very rarely using “shot reverse shot”. Shooting in a car is very time consuming due to set up time and car scenes cannot be done in one take for obvious blocking reasons. We created shot lists and blocking to emphasize what was happening in the story.

For instance, at some point William starts to sit in the front seat of the cab due to the fact that he is no longer a passenger in the car but rather a friend. We would take this logic and find the best shot to show this.

There are a million and one ways to make a movie and Ramin and I have spent three-and-a-half movies working in a very close and collaborative way. I do not have the same relationship with other directors — but I don’t have the same relationship with ANY two directors. Each collaboration is its own unique experience and process.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
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